Sustainability in Practice: Study Aims to Create Benchmarking Data

Colleges working together to develop waste standard.

By 
Lindsey Ramsey, Contributing Editor

Workers weigh plate waste at Michigan State.

Food waste studies have become something of a norm at many college and universities, but Carla Iansiti, MSU Culinary Services sustainability officer at Michigan State University, in East Lansing, was frustrated with the lack of benchmarking data that would tell her what was an acceptable amount of food waste.

“We started talking about a food waste study for post-consumer waste two years ago,” Iansiti says. “We weren’t sure what we were doing. We looked at other universities and we thought, ‘OK, we need to get some benchmarking data.’ We wanted to know what the standard was and what was an acceptable amount for an all-you-care-to-eat facility and we couldn’t really find a lot of information.”

So Iansiti conducted her department’s first food waste study in nine different dining halls. She counted patrons, scraped all the food in buckets and weighed all the waste in the buckets. She came up with roughly 3.5 ounces of waste per person.

“This year we decided to do the food waste study again to establish some data and use better technology,” Iansiti says. “We worked with our [information services] department to get some equipment where I was able to preprogram the weight of the plate into the scale so we could just put the plates on there and it would weigh the waste. We’re in the middle of that study now. We’re taking that data as a per-person count so I don’t necessarily need everybody in the dining hall. As long as you give me your tray I’m able to weigh what edible food remains. So this year [so far] we are just a smidgen less than last year, at 3.3 ounces per person. We’re comparing it to other universities to try and figure out what is acceptable and what isn’t because apparently that information is not out there.”

In order to establish an acceptable standard, Iansiti has reached out to several universities to try to start a group that could meet up at NACUFS events and discuss what would be benchmarking data for universities to reach.

“We’re in the early stages of trying to do that now,” Iansiti says. “What we’re trying to do is not point fingers—you’re going to eat what you eat. We cook to order as much as we can so we don’t have anything to throw away from overproduction. The breakdown for us is people are eating with their eyes so our communication piece is missing. Our employees are serving students and they just want to make them happy so they serve students a lot.”

One strategy the department is looking at to combat this is serviceware. When a new dining hall opens in January, Iansiti says there’s going to be a standard plate size. That dining hall will be the first that was actually designed as trayless.

“We’re looking at the plates as to what people can carry and still be satisfied with what they’ve chosen,” Iansiti says. “We have one hall that is currently trayless and has been since 2009. The other halls are trayless on a volunteer basis.”  

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